April 10, 2024

South Korea’s 22nd National Assembly Elections and the Likely Effect on North Korean Human Rights

By Greg Scarlatoiu, Raymond Ha, Colleen Burns, and Gayeong Lee

April 10, 2024

Today was South Korea’s turn in this global year of elections. Close to 30 million voters (approx. 67% turnout) went to the polls to elect the 300 members of the Republic of Korea’s 22nd National Assembly—254 from single-member districts, and 46 from a nationwide party list proportional vote.

While the votes are still being counted, the opposition parties are on course to win a resounding victory. The Democratic Party of Korea (DP) is set to win a decisive majority, with some exit polls indicating that the liberal bloc could win over 200 seats.

Inter-Korean relations may not have been at the forefront of voters’ concerns, just as Taiwan’s January 13 election was “mostly about Taiwan, not China.” However, the outcome of today’s election will have important implications for North Korean human rights.

The Yoon administration's emphasis on North Korean human rights is unlikely to be immediately affected by this result. The opposition's victory, however, lowers the likelihood that there will be movement on establishing the North Korean Human Rights Foundation (NKHRF) pursuant to South Korea's North Korean Human Rights Act.

Regrettably, bipartisan consensus over the NKHRF and North Korean human rights in general remains unlikely. As incomprehensible as it may be to outside observers, North Korean human rights will continue to be a political football in a South Korea ever-teetering on the brink of an ideological civil war.

The Role of the National Assembly

The National Assembly can pass laws that shape inter-Korean relations, as it did with the so-called “anti-leaflet ban” in 2020. (South Korea’s Constitutional Court ultimately struck down the law last September.) The National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee can draw attention to relevant issues, as it did when the Committee adopted a resolution last November urging China to halt the forcible repatriation of North Korean escapees.

The National Assembly can also use its power of the purse to influence policy implementation at relevant agencies, including the Ministry of Unification. (In a recent example, the opposition reportedly reduced the budget for the North Korean Human Rights Center, citing possible redundancies with existing institutions.) Moreover, representatives can highlight or criticize policy initiatives during the annual audit of state affairs.

Parliamentary associations such as IPCNKR can exchange views with their legislative counterparts, including the APPG on North Korea in the United Kingdom. Finally, North Korean escapees who are elected to the National Assembly can not only represent the interests of the 34,000 escapees who have resettled in South Korea, but also advocate for the human rights of the North Korean people.

Overall Impact on North Korean Human Rights Policy

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration has adopted a proactive approach to North Korean human rights issues. For the first time, the Ministry of Unification released a public report on the human rights situation in North Korea, as well as an analysis of socioeconomic trends under Kim Jong-un based on escapee surveys. Minister of Unification Kim Yung-ho has stressed the importance of raising awareness on North Korean human rights at home and abroad

Furthermore, the Yoon administration appointed Lee Shin-wha as the Ambassador for International Cooperation on North Korean Human Rights, filling a position that had been vacant for nearly five years. South Korea’s diplomats have spoken out on behalf of North Korean human rights at the United Nations in New York and Geneva. At the Camp David trilateral summit last August, President Yoon, President Biden, and Prime Minister Kishida “commit[ted] to strengthening cooperation on the issue,” especially with regards to “the issues of abductees, detainees, and unrepatriated prisoners of war.”

These policy initiatives are unlikely to be immediately affected by today’s election results, and the Yoon administration appears poised to maintain its focus on North Korean human rights issues going forward. Parliamentary exchanges and discussions on North Korean human rights issues will depend on whether individual representatives decide to draw attention to these matters.

The North Korean Human Rights Foundation

A key issue in which the National Assembly plays a central role is the continued delay in establishing the North Korean Human Rights Foundation (NKHRF) pursuant to South Korea’s North Korean Human Rights Act. The National Assembly adopted this law in a bipartisan vote in March 2016. Article 10 of the Act calls for the establishment of a government-funded foundation to “report on the state of North Korea’s human rights situation, inter-Korean human rights dialogue, humanitarian assistance,” and other related issues.

Article 12 further specifies that the NKHRF shall have twelve board members—two chosen by the Ministry of Unification, five by the ruling party, and five by the opposition parties. This provision does not depend on the prevailing balance of power in the National Assembly. The DP has not chosen any board members since the Act entered into force in September 2016, and the NKHRF has not been established. In its place, the Yoon administration has formed a Committee for the Promotion of North Korean Human Rights under the Ministry of Unification.

Since the early days of the Yoon administration, the PPP called on the DP to appoint its share of NKHRF board members in return for appointing a special inspector to investigate corruption among the president’s family and high-level officials. In early February, however, there were reports that the PPP was considering dropping its demand about the NKHRF. There have been no notable public discussions of the NKHRF since.

Despite the Ministry of Unification’s roadmap for launching the NKHRF, it appears unlikely that the issue will gain traction in the 22nd National Assembly.

Escapee Representation in the National Assembly

Two North Korean escapees have served in the 21st National Assembly. Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat, was elected to represent the Gangnam-A district. Ji Seong-ho, a human rights activist, was elected from the proportional party list.

For this general election, the PPP selected Thae to run against Youn Gun-young, a former high-level official in the Moon Jae-in administration, in the Guro-B district in southwestern Seoul. Ji applied as a candidate for the Seocho-B district, but he was not chosen as the PPP candidate. In addition, the PPP nominated Park Choong-kwon, a 38-year old escapee who was once a missile engineer in North Korea, to the second position on its proportional party list.[1]

Park is all but certain to win a seat in the National Assembly. He has said that he wishes to "play a role in inter-Korean relations," and he can be expected to speak out on North Korea-related issues, including human rights concerns. Thae Yong-ho, however, appears to have failed in his bid for a second term in the National Assembly.

[1] Park was formally nominated by the People's Future Party, a satellite party associated with the PPP. See Jinwan Park, "Understanding Satellite Parties in South Korea and Their Dangers to Democracy," The Diplomat, February 28, 2024.